It was no surprise that trainer Tim Yakteen won Saturday’s $750,500 Santa Anita Derby (G1) with a high-profile transfer from the barn of the suspended Bob Baffert. Less expected was the fact that it was Taiba, stepping up from just a six-furlong debut romp, who swept past more accomplished stablemate Messier to bank 100 Kentucky Derby (G1) points.
The first plot twist was the rapid retreat of even-money favorite Forbidden Kingdom. Speeding to his customary early lead, Forbidden Kingdom rattled off fractions of :22.75, :46.70, and 1:10.97. Messier hovered in a smooth-traveling second, and the 1.30-1 second chance appeared to be sitting pretty as he put away Forbidden Kingdom on the far turn. The favorite had no answer, soon dropping back and ending up last.
Yet Taiba was working out a favorable trip with Hall of Famer Mike Smith. Securing a forward position from the outside post 6, the son of hot young sire Gun Runner let Messier go chase Forbidden Kingdom. Taiba bided his time in third, then covered Messier’s move turning for home.
Although Messier continued to hold sway for much of the stretch, Taiba belied his inexperience with a power-packed finish. The 4.30-1 shot overhauled his stablemate and won going away by 2 1/4 lengths, clocking 1 1/8 miles in a solid 1:48.46.
Note that the fractions and final time listed here are the corrected versions. The initial chart on Saturday inaccurately reported :23.23, :46.66, 1:10.93, and 1:48.67.
By earning his ticket to the Kentucky Derby, Taiba furnishes a key storyline beyond his resume of just two starts. The $1.7 million Fasig-Tipton Gulfstream juvenile is owned by Amr Zedan’s Zedan Racing – whose Medina Spirit, the first-past-the-post in the 2021 Kentucky Derby, was disqualified following his positive postrace test. That led to Baffert’s suspension.
Messier received 40 points for his runner-up effort, 10 lengths clear of Happy Jack in third. Happy Jack, who was also a distant third in the San Felipe (G2), added 20 points to up his total to 30. Armagnac, another Baffert-to-Yakteen exchange student, pocketed 10 points for finishing a neck away in fourth. Win the Day beat Forbidden Kingdom to the wire.
Taiba had shown star potential in his March 5 unveiling at Santa Anita, where he vied through punishing fractions but pulled away by 7 1/2 lengths. His time of 1:09.97 was sharp enough to register a 100 Brisnet Speed rating.
Still, by all the usual rules of horsemanship, pitching him straight into the 1 1/8-mile Santa Anita Derby would have been regarded as a bridge too far. Even Justify, Baffert’s 2018 Triple Crown winner who rewrote the recordbook on what was possible for an unraced juvenile, started out at seven furlongs and had the intermediate step of a two-turn allowance.
Fellow Hall of Famer John Velazquez rode Taiba first out, but remained aboard the proven Messier for the Santa Anita Derby. Smith picked up the mount, and the veteran knows he has landed on an exceptional opportunity.
“When one comes along like that, he showed he was really good,” Smith said. “He didn’t really get away very well. In the first turn, I didn’t want to get in the way. I wasn’t in any hurry. I felt the others would do the dirty work for me and it set up just fine. He showed just how special he is. He belongs with anyone. He just recovers really well.
“I’m not getting any younger. As I get older, I have felt that something special is going to happen. This just may lead to that. The sky’s the limit.”
Taiba is one of three Gun Runner colts now safely in the Derby field, along with Arkansas Derby (G1) hero Cyberknife and Saturday’s Wood Memorial (G2) runner-up Early Voting. Bred by Bruce Ryan in Kentucky, the chestnut first brought $140,000 as a Fasig-Tipton Kentucky October yearling. He was a pinhook home run for Hartley/De Renzo Thoroughbreds, which resold him to Zedan’s agent, Gary Young, for the aforementioned $1.7 million as a juvenile.
Taiba’s dam, $732,103-earner Needmore Flattery, was an Ohio-bred celebrity who won or placed in 22 stakes during her 39-race career. She is by Flatter, the paternal grandsire of Saturday’s Blue Grass (G1) hero, Zandon.